National Book Awards honor Oprah, year's top works
November 18, 1999
CNN Interactive Senior Writer
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In the glare of Times Square, the National Book Foundation celebrated half a century of top writing on Wednesday night with its annual National Book Awards ceremony at the Marriott Marquis in New York. But it was talk show host and actress Oprah Winfrey who commanded the spotlight.
Winfrey, whose "Oprah's Book Club" has enjoyed wild popularity and influenced many a best-seller list, was given a special 50th Anniversary Gold Medal for her contribution to reading and books.
Winfrey told the audience at the black-tie affair that she was in awe of some of those in attendance -- they included former National Book Award winners Alice McDermott and Toni Morrison, a favorite of Winfrey's.
"I love authors," Winfrey confessed after receiving the honor. "I love authors because they wrestle with words. For all of you here tonight who wrestle with words, God bless you."
The National Book Awards, which honor the top U.S.-published work, are held each year in New York. The first ceremony was held at the Waldorf Astoria in 1950. While the event has enjoyed publicity, this year's awards has received a PR push from Winfrey's appearance, and by the host of the event.
Actor-comic-writer Steve Martin, who admitted being slightly nervous before the event, was master of ceremonies, and started things off in predictably humorous fashion.
"I can't tell you how excited I was when I was told I had been asked to host the awards dinner for the NBA," Martin deadpanned. "This really isn't the crowd I expected."
Ha Jin took home top fiction honors for his book "Waiting." The award caps an incredible journey for the writer, who was a Chinese citizen who served six years in the People's Liberation Army, moved to the United States in 1985 and became a U.S. citizen just two years ago. The book was written in English.
"I am deeply humbled and honored," said the author. "I think I also wish to thank America, a land of generosity. I thank the English language, that has provided me with a niche where I can do meaningful work."
"I had convinced myself that either Louise Gluck or C.K. Williams would win," she said, "So I was really amazed and very happy."
Nonfiction honors went to John. W. Dower for his historic recollection, "Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II." Dower says the book took over 10 years to write.
"I was trying to recapture the voice of the Japanese and what the experience of defeat was," Dower said. "What we do as historians is not just deal with the elites, but try to get ordinary people's voices."
The award for young people's literature went to Kimberly Willis Holt for her book, "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town," a coming-of age-tale of a 13-year-old boy trying to find his identity in an imperfect world.
Holt said she was walking through New York Tuesday with her agent when admitted she hadn't written an acceptance speech, she was so certain she would not win. Her agent made her write one.
She thanked the foundation for "recognizing children's literature ... in doing this you've given honor to every children's book.
"I will remember this moment forever," she said.
She says recent successes of children's books including "Harry Potter" are a good omen for her industry.
"I think it's wonderful," she said. "I think it has really made parents who may not have been aware of books really pay attention to children's literature. I'm excited by the success of those books."
The awards ceremony was prefaced by several events this week, including book signings and a reading by all 20 finalists on Tuesday.
The first National Book Awards were won by Nelson Algren in fiction ("The Man with the Golden Arm"), Ralph L. Rusk in nonfiction ("Ralph Waldo Emerson") and Williams Carlos Williams in poetry (Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems").
National Book Awards rev up before main event
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